Playwright Annie Weisman may be the next Rebecca Gilman, the West Coast's answer to the Midwest's popular playwriting poster girl. Weisman is attracting her first major attention this year with two productions in two major regional theatres. The first, a dark cheerleading comedy titled Be Aggressive, is currently premiering at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse through Aug. 26, while the second, the women-in-the-workplace play Hold Please, debuts Sept. 18-Oct. 21 on South Coast Repertory Theatre's Second Stage. That company, which has nurtured Richard Greenberg (Three Days of Rain, Hurrah at Last) and David Lindsay Abaire (Fuddy Meers, Kimberly Akimbo), commissioned Weisman to write the piece. A San Diego native, Weisman grew up in the wealthy community of Del Mar (known for its thoroughbred stakes races) and talks to Playbill On-Line about cheerleading, the politics of the supposedly disenfranchised working woman, and her new musical about young actresses who become hookers.
Playbill On-Line: Were you a cheerleader? How did you feel about cheerleaders in high school?
Annie Weisman: I was a cheerleader in high school, a large public school in a beach town in San Diego. I was a teenager with latent theatre tendencies, and cheerleading was a socially acceptable outlet for my impulse to perform. Looking back on it now, I see the appeal of cheerleading to teenage girls like me a little more clearly. The unison speech, the coordinated movements, the tribal rhythms and chanting are a way of structuring a time of painful change. Cheerleaders coordinate their emotions, too, perfecting the quick changes from gleefully happy, to stern and strong, to sexy, to girlish and innocent. It's a mastery over feelings and movements at a time when awkwardness is at its peak and individuality is a social threat. With Lisa Peterson, who directed this production, we have translated cheer movement into a theatrical language that is new and exciting.
How does your growing up in Del Mar inform the work — tell me a little about Del Mar.
AW: Del Mar is a beautiful beach town north of San Diego, and when my parents moved there in the Seventies it was quite a small and untouched place. In the last ten years, it has undergone the kind of exponential development and growth you see all along the coast of California. I wanted to explore adolescence, and I chose to explore what I think of as the adolescence not just of the characters, but of a place like Del Mar. I set the play during the time of awkward growth and change of the small paradise, when a huge new housing development and freeway is being built, and the town is struggling to accommodate the change. Also, the story begins with a tragic event, a hit-and-run death, which feels incomprehensible and difficult to accommodate in the community, and therefore there is no real process in place for collective grief. The myth of California as a new and perfect place where people go to reinvent themselves in a beautiful climate, is so appealing that I think it's drawn so many people out here that the myth itself has been tarnished, the paradise has been overdeveloped and ruined. This play starts at what I think is the adolescence, the beginning of the end of that myth, or hopefully, of a new and more mature myth.
PBOL: Do you have future plans for Be Aggressive ?
AW: There's all kinds of talk — no commitments yet.
PBOL: Following hard upon Be Aggressive is Hold Please; can you tell me a little about the play?
AW: Hold Please is the story of two generations of female office workers: middle aged-women who are career secretaries, and women in their twenties who are entry-level "assistants" who see themselves as having growth opportunity in the company. I'm interested in the ways that I think women create and perpetrate what we often see as male-generated sexism in the workplace. I'm interested in how sexual politics play themselves out among the supposedly disempowered. It's the story of the micro-world of office power plays — the politics of the copy machine, the break room, the coffee creamer, etc. PBOL: Do you consider yourself an issue-writing playwright (like a Rebecca Gilman) or are you more interested in creating characters to see what issues come out of them?
AW: I tend to sit with a lot of different story ideas, and a lot of different thematic ideas, but the impulse for a play comes from the marriage of story and theme, when that chemical reaction happens, I start writing. I definitely consider it a mission of mine to create central, complicated female characters because there are still such a dearth of them. We still have a long way to go in terms of the of the variety and depth of roles available to women. But this isn't just a social mission, it's an aesthetic one. There are so many fabulous and underutilized actresses, of all ages out there. And personally, I find the relationships among women, and the ways that power and hostility are negotiated among women to be infinitely fascinating and complex. I am a big fan of David Mamet and Neil LaBute who I think explore these kinds of dynamics among men in such an acute way. But the parallel politics among women often go unexplored.
PBOL: Whom do you consider influences on your writing?
AW: David Mamet and Harold Pinter are probably my favorite living big famous playwrights. I am a big fan of Kenneth Lonergan's and feel challenged in the best way by the exciting work of the some of the young playwrights I know: Bridget Carpenter, Jessica Goldberg, Christopher Shinn, John Belluso, and David Lindsay-Abaire, to name a few.
PBOL: Can you tell me about the musical you're working on for Trinity Rep? What's it about? Are you composing or who are you working with on it?
AW: At this point, it's only a very inchoate idea that I have been developing with director Amanda Dehnert and artistic director Oskar Eustis. It's a story about some young actresses in Hollywood who become hookers. We are talking to composers, but we don't have one yet.
— By Christine Ehren